Imagine you break up with your significant other after suffering abuse in the relationship. But your ex won’t take no for an answer. The person calls you, texts you, emails you, scours your Facebook page, pesters your family, and follows you around using a GPS tracker. In just one day you receive hundreds of calls, emails and texts from your ex. The experience is so unsettling that you avoid technology at all costs; you abandon social media altogether and disregard emails.
This is the story of domestic violence and cyberstalking survivor Sara Hardesty, who eventually sought help from Helpmate, a program that helps survivors of domestic violence in North Carolina. Her experience is the narrative of millions of survivors in the U.S. who continue to grapple with domestic violence long after their relationships with a romantic partner have ended.
The digital age has equipped us with a wide expanse of technological gadgets that, like superpowers, can be employed for good or evil. While technology has offered refuge and comfort to survivors of domestic violence, it has also given abusers a means to track down former partners. 97 percent of organizations surveyed by U.S. Network to End Domestic Violence in 2014 indicated that the survivors they worked with were being targeted using technology.
The network of embedded devices that enable the exchange of data, known as the Internet of Things (IoT), takes spying capabilities a step further. While IoT has a variety of benefits and has saved countless lives, it can also put survivors of domestic violence at greater risk.
“Google Glass, and other technologies for capturing, sharing, and streaming images, can have a chilling effect,” said U.S. government Technology Policy Analyst, Marjory Blumenthal. “[They] can have unintended consequences (i.e., disclosure of the location of domestic violence victims who have escaped their tormentors).”
Some might disagree with Blumenthal, arguing that technological good trumps technological deviances when it comes to abuse. It was, in fact, the Internet that shed light on domestic violence when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Rice assaulted his then-fiancee Janay Palmer in an elevator in 2014. Survivors responded with the Twitter campaign #WhyIStayed to let the world know that the complexity of abuse cannot be solved with a simple goodbye. Aside from bringing domestic violence to the public’s consciousness, technology can provide a direct access to the police or survivor hotlines, and it can monitor abusers to ensure they don’t strike again.
On the other hand, digitization can perpetuate harm to survivors of domestic violence. “There is no doubt that smart phone technology has made life easier and people more connected, but it has also unintentionally made it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to make a clean break from their abusers,” said San Diego Assembly Speaker, Toni G. Atkins. Atkins drafted the California Assembly Bill 1407 which ensures domestic violence survivors can gain sole access to their wireless billing account and the sensitive information they contain.
As we approach Super Bowl Sunday, an event that in recent years has provided a platform to bring greater awareness to domestic violence, we must continue to support programs that empower survivors — such as Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence and Men Stopping Violence — and remember to use our technological advancements for good and not harm.